“How do you compose?”
Every composer is fated to be asked this question by strangers at Starbucks, audience members backstage, and keen pupils in lofty classrooms. It is a question that makes us stutter.
Unfortunately, no two composers adhere to the same method. I know composers who write a piece in one night after weeks of pondering, and others who meticulously finish a predetermined amount of music per day (Miklós Rózsa, one of the greatest film composers of all time, committed to a minute of music a day). Every composer develops his own unique workflow over time. My workflow is characteristic of the right brain and often resembles total anarchy.
How to Avoid Hate
I hate writing, I love having written.
—Dorothy Parker, author and critic
Child-birthing new music can be tormenting because the inspiration of the right brain ends long before the double bar, so here is some universal advice to aid you in crafting your own masterwork:
- Write music with accountability and a timeframe. Solo hikes can feel seemingly pointless without a guide or end in sight, and so can voluntary compositions. My professor, a musical trailblazer, was able to see me through this painful trek to the journey’s end, and thereafter I had a mental marker of the end. While the pain is still present in newer projects, I manage to write more and more.
- Don’t obligate yourself to composing in chronological order. If you are struggling with one section and already have plans for a later part, start working on a new section. I enjoy writing multiple sections at once, and eventually connecting them like railroad segments.
- Establish accomplishment “markers” so you can recognize your progress. One such marker for me is when I’ve outlined the full scope of a piece in my head or on my dominant instrument; another is adding the tempos, dynamics, and expressive markings to the document.
- Edit an old section of music if you have no inspiration for a new section. When I experience creative droughts, I warm up my brain by adding markings to older material, and within half an hour I am yearning to work on the actual composing.
- Write a little every day. It lessens the pain of jumping into your session, despite how much you accomplish. Even a few measures a day adds up very quickly.
- Allow periods of listening, then periods of composing. Some people do both simultaneously, but I prefer to study someone else’s work for a time, then work on my own.
- Purchase ear plugs or compose in a sound-proof room. The musical ear is extremely sensitive to external noises like whistling, the cracking of dishes, or the hum of a fan.
- Do not compose with Finale’s playback as your guide. Even good virtual instruments can distort what you write and negatively influence the way you compose. Finale can make a beautiful melody sound boring and tempt you to add more notes, whereas a true acoustic rendition will likely sound too busy. There are a million reasons to turn off the volume and write from your inner ear. I promise you the sounds in your head will be the better judge.
- When fleshing out instrumentation, get away from your native instrument and constantly listen to music of your intended instrumentation before you write. Again, unrepresentative sounds must not influence your writing! When I began my string quartet, I used the piano to fill in parts and thus over-orchestrated; this is because piano music requires more notes than a string quartet to sound “rich.” (Reciprocally, I find that non-pianists tend to write too thinly for piano!) Tune your orchestration instincts with plenty of listening, then trust your head as you write. Contrapuntal elements especially can be ineffective on the piano but sound quite natural when played by their intended ensemble.
My Hateful Process
As a musical perfectionist, I contend for that magic, organic revelation of the purest, most gorgeous music available outside Heaven’s gates. Aesthetically I am most interested in whether the piece flows organically, like oil off of a frying pan. If a melody or section sounds manufactured or awkward in context, it is probably not the right material for that particular piece.
My process is hardly organic and smooth, and rather an impassioned mixture of ecstasy and frustration. I have moments of writer’s block and mystification suddenly followed by the emergence of a beautiful theme. That’s why I hate composing and love it at the same time.
And yet the finished product of this explosive process is not inferior; to the contrary, every project with a deadline divinely receives my perfectionist approval.
The actual process starts with perhaps half a melody or a motif. I am persuaded that God plants the initial material in my head: often I will wake up and suddenly internalize a theme complete with instrumentation. These bits of music always have an organic, flowing, right brain flavor that delights my ear for at least ten runs on the piano. After that, I begin experimenting with the idea by improvising and stretching its mechanical use. (I do record the pure material for future writing, given it may take months or years to fully realize its potential. Some melodies/motifs are more flexible than others.) After this “seasoning” period, I formalize the instrumentation/form and expand the material into a full section.
This is where pain begins. When a natural ending to that half-a-melody does not come immediately to me, I begin “left-braining” all my options. Ninety-nine percent of the time what I first conjure up is replaced five more times before the final solution comes. Days and weeks can squirm by without any obvious solutions. At some point after “hammering out” all the available candidates, I wake up one day and suddenly “remember” the second half of the material. “Hey, did you want this?” It is laughable how many versions of a melody I can draft before the melody of my dreams emerges. This kind of workflow characterizes all my pieces to the double bar. I then listen through the piece for pacing, flow, and errors (and sometimes I completely rewrite a section).
Before college I could not finish a single piece—it took teachers, deadlines, and dependent grades to prod me into finishing my first works of music. My string orchestra overture for a competition took months to finish and weeks to edit; the process was tortuous and only occasionally dotted with “aha!” moments. My second major work, a three-minute brass fanfare for another competition, doubled as an assignment for my composition course. The combination of a deadline and a grade helped me discover exactly how much pain I had to suffer before finishing a piece.
Now after several such deadlines I am writing on my own. Before college I would have scoffed at finishing any work, but this past year (God be praised!) I finished a thirty-minute string quartet. My last piece was barely six minutes.
I encourage new composers to find your own natural writing process by experimenting with different workflows. Set parameters for your work; boldly challenge “dead weight” in your music.
And above all, listen to your ear.